Every year students come to us who are performing below grade level. We are charged with the task of catching them up; and, the farther behind they are the more ground we are expected to cover. The stakes are high, and I’m not even talking about the relationship between job security and test sores. Multiple sources from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander to the new movie The House I Live In illuminate the link between test scores and incarceration. So, yes the stakes are very high—especially for our students. I have spent years working with students who are academically behind. The needs I saw motivated me to go for special training in literacy.
So, what have I learned? I’m not going to offer you a magic wand, but here are a few strategies that I rely on:
- Put high interest literature in their hands. For high school students reading at upper elementary or middle school levels I like the Bluford series. It is a series of chapter books about a bunch of students all attending them same school. They sell for just $1. Also, I've found male students seem to prefer comedy, horror and nonfiction. They rush to grab up the newspapers and sports magazines. They need to be reading a lot and the easiest way to do that is to give them something to read that interests them.
- Teach word parts. Students who have phonics skills, but poor vocabulary will struggle to read longer, unfamiliar words. Teaching them word parts gives them confidence when approaching grade level vocabulary. They learn patterns in the language and are able to define more words.
- Don’t embarrass them by making them read aloud a text that they haven’t rehearsed. The best way to get them to read is to have them read something that they have written themselves. That way they will be totally familiar with the vocabulary because it is their own. This gives them success and improves their much needed self esteem when it comes to reading.
- Model, model, model. Students who struggle do not know what good readers do (visualize, ask questions, predict, summarize, make inferences, etc.). They need to see and hear what that looks like. This includes reading aloud to them and modeling your thinking as you read.
- Give them something to do when they read. Many students have a hard time staying focused. Give them a reading they can mark up and a guide for what to mark up. This will help them keep their mind and body (…well, hands at least) engaged. If you can't do this, give them a graphic organizer.
- Don't give them a text to read independently if they can't read it independently. This is huge. Watch out for this pitfall.
- Teach them the parts of a textbook and have them practice navigating it for information.
- Let them work in groups to read and discuss. The strategies I like the most are the jigsaw and reciprocal teaching. Social engagement helps keep them focused. Hearing explanations from a peer instead of a teacher also makes concepts more accessible to them.
Again, I don't have all the answers. Far from it. But, if this is helpful and you have any other questions or suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments section.